How Tyler, the Creator Trojan-Horsed the Gay Agenda onto Hot 97's Airwaves

Funkmaster Flex (right) interviews Tyler, the Creator on Hot 97 on July 25, 2019. (Hot 97/YouTube)

On last week's Hot 97 interview with Funkmaster Flex, Tyler, the Creator wore an impish grin as he started his freestyle.

"Free Rakim, free Rakim/I might fly to Sweden to free him," he rapped, referring to the incarcerated A$AP Rocky. Then, to everyone's surprise, he quickly pivoted from activist to horn dog, fantasizing about switching places with Rocky so he "could f-ck all the sweet men."

While it's an open industry secret that most radio freestyles aren't really freestyles, Tyler's frequent pauses indicated that he really was going off the top of his head, which made the verses that followed seem even more bold. After stopping to think for a few bars, he continued: "Me and Flex/ Looking in the index/Just for some buff net n----s/For some hot butt sex."

At this point, Funk Flex threw up his arms in surprise. He looked visibly torn between not wanting to cosign Tyler's very gay bars and not wanting to seem homophobic. He stuttered in semi-protest, "What made you want to go with that verse?"

Like a rebellious toddler gleefully testing a parent with weak boundaries, Tyler continued rhyming, dropping references to the men's hook-up app Grindr and ice cream dates with guys. Sensing Flex's discomfort, he threw in lines about the two of them hooking up and cuddling while watching Scooby-Doo. Flex feebly yelled, "Pause!" but Tyler pressed on with a smirk.

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MTV and Rolling Stone commended the seven-minute-long performance, hailing Tyler for bringing back the lost art of the completely impromptu radio freestyle. But he did something else important by loading his lyrics with gay references within the staunchly masculine, heteronormative space of Hot 97, the country's most influential rap station.

Historically, Hot 97 has done a poor job handling LGBTQ+ issues. In 2013, after beloved host Mister Cee was arrested for soliciting trans sex workers, his boss at the station, Ebro Darden, questioned him about his sexuality in an on-air interview. The conversation was supposed to be sympathetic, but Darden fixated on the binary of gay vs. straight rather than affirming the reality that there are straight-identifying men who are attracted to trans women.

In 2014, Darden questioned rapper iLoveMakonnen's interest in cosmetology, commenting in a leery tone that his hobby might make fans assume that he's gay, thereby putting the artist in a position to defend his professed heterosexuality. (Makonnen came out as gay three years later, in 2017.)

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Also in 2017, Charlamagne tha God and the other hosts of Hot 97's Breakfast Club questioned transgender author Janet Mock about her bottom surgery during a conversation about her coming-of-age memoir—a book that had nothing to do with her genitals. A few days later, Breakfast Club hosts invited comedian Lil Duval on air. He misgendered Mock and joked that he would kill a trans woman if he were to mistakenly sleep with one—an attitude shared by murderers of trans women, who kill them in disproportionate numbers every year.

Hot 97 hosts' subtle cringes at LGBTQ+ people, and their lack of pushback when confronted with overt transphobia, has long sent the message that the station is a place where the queer and trans community is somewhat tolerated but definitely not welcome. So perhaps the perfect person to trojan horse the gay agenda onto Hot 97's airwaves is a complicated queer figure like Tyler, the Creator, who started his career as a homophobe and surprised everyone by hinting at same-sex attraction in his lyrics and tweets starting in 2015.

Although Tyler's lack of contrition for his past anti-gay music continues to frustrate LGBTQ+ listeners, myself included, his masculine image, gruff voice and refusal label himself as gay or bi—even though he sometimes raps about dudes—has kept him relatively insulated from discrimination within the hetero rap world. Perhaps the straight-dude fans he hooked early on with 2011's aggressively homophobic Goblin don't mind that Tyler is queer because his sexuality has only been a footnote, rather than a central theme, in the albums he's released since becoming open about liking guys.

Tyler's revelation accompanied a drastic change in how he conveyed meaning in his songs. On 2017's Flowerboy and this year's IGOR, he evolved from a shock-jock first-person narrator into a composer with jazzy, soulful tastes. On IGOR especially, his rapping became one of many instruments in vibe-y arrangements of fuzzed-out synth melodies, collages of samples and pitch-shifted vocals. Once brash and trollish, he turned into a more sincere lyricist presiding over unfolding stories with many parts, where queerness is a facet but not the main focus.

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Without a public apology for his past homophobia, or at least some insight into how he's evolved, many LGBTQ+ listeners still bristle at Tyler. But a side-effect of his vague, label-less kinda-sorta coming out is his ability to continue to move freely in straight, masculine spaces where unmistakably queer artists like Big Freedia still aren't fully embraced. That chameleon-like passing allows Tyler to hold court with hip-hop gatekeepers like Funk Flex—to whom he rapped about gay sex with a Goblin-era brashness (minus the hatefulness) that pushed the boundaries of what's accepted and celebrated on Hot 97. The freestyle went viral, and the entire 90-minute interview has over 1.1 million views and counting.

Tyler, the Creator has a long way to go if he truly wants to champion the LGBTQ+ community, and he hasn't proclaimed himself an activist. Still, on Hot 97 last week, he pulled off an important feat: using his passing privilege to normalize queerness on one of rap's most important and conservative platforms.

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